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UC Berkeley Press Release

Embryologist William Berg dies at 87

– William Eugene Berg, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied the effects of chemicals on embryos, died Oct. 27 at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Stockton, Calif. Berg, who was 87, had suffered a stroke earlier in the week.

William Berg
Berg, who retired from UC Berkeley in 1980, straddled the transition between early embryological research, conducted primarily with a microscope, and modern developmental or cell biology research involving genetic and cellular manipulation.

"Experimentalists of that time worked under the microscope, observing single embryos, following visually in real time what cells became what organs, and what happened if you removed some cells or transplanted cells to an unusual location. Was there a defect? Did it compensate somehow?" said Fred Wilt, a UC Berkeley Professor of the Graduate School in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and a former colleague of Berg's.

Berg worked primarily with sea urchin embryos and had a long collaboration with the University of California's Bodega Marine Laboratory on the northern California coast, according to Wilt.

"He worked in the bridge between pre-modern and modern, and he and his students did some of the first, and best, work on how the embryo used amino acids to synthesize proteins, and how various treatments affected the accumulation of RNA and other substances in the embryo," Wilt said.

"A reserved, almost shy man, very sweet," according to Wilt, Berg was a good and caring teacher and a mentor to many students.

After retiring from UC Berkeley, he moved with his wife to Pollock Pines, Calif., where he continued his interest in national and state conservation and environmental issues. He was a longtime member of the Sierra Club.

"He was a very principled guy, and he acted on his principles," said colleague Howard Bern, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of integrative biology.

Born at home in Round Mountain, Nev., on Dec. 6, 1918, Berg graduated from Belmont High School in Los Angeles and received both his B.S. in biology in1939 and his M.S. in experimental embryology in 1940 from the California Institute of Technology.

He conducted research in aviation physiology at the University of Southern California and Stanford University between 1940 and 1943, and subsequently was appointed a research fellow in the Division of Medical Physics at UC Berkeley, where he worked on gas exchange during respiration with division founder Dr. John H. Lawrence, brother of cyclotron inventor and Nobel Laureate Ernest O. Lawrence. As a result, he was selected as one of three scientific observers to the detonation of atomic bombs in Bikini Atoll in 1946.

Berg subsequently earned his Ph.D. in experimental morphogenesis and genetics from Stanford University in 1946, began lecturing at UC Berkeley in 1947, was appointed an assistant professor of zoology in 1948 and a full professor in 1961. In 1953, he served as an instructor in embryology at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

A Guggenheim Fellow in 1950, his work was supported by the American Cancer Society and fellowships from the U.S. Public Health Service, among others. His publications appeared in journals such as Science, The Journal of General Physiology, The American Journal of Physiology, Experimental Cell Research and American Zoologist.

In retirement, his avid reading ranged from science magazines to mystery novels. He loved to travel in his RV. He also volunteered at a hospice and at Oak Grove Regional Park in Stockton, where he moved after the death in 1999 of his wife of 32 years, Barbara "Bobbie." He played bridge and delighted in skunking his family in cribbage, according to his daughter Doran Berg.

In the last several years, Berg studied old bottles and created a display in the Smoky Valley Museum in Round Mountain, Nev.

He is survived by his daughters, Susan Landauer of Oakland, Calif., and Doran Berg of Stockton; his sole grandchild, Benjamin Jacob Hirschfield of Santa Cruz; and his siblings, Shirley Ann Henle and Karl (Skook) Berg, both of Round Mountain, Nev. Berg was predeceased by his siblings, Betty Jane Berg, Dan Berg and Getta Jakowatz; and his first wife, Patricia Garrett. He is also survived by numerous nieces and nephews, including cherished nieces Dianne Clouser and Tinker Fanin of Nevada.

Services will be private. The family asks that contributions in his name be made to the Sierra Club, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research or other charities.